Among the capitals of the world over this past week there was much talk of a revival of the cold war. President Carter of the United States moved warships and warplanes and talked with allies about bases and joint operations. In the General Assembly of the United Nations 104 countries "strongly deplored" the event that had set off all the talk and all the motion -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Soviets must have been startled by the vote in the UN. Their bloc was down to 18 against those 104. It was the most widely supported rebuke yet administered to a superpower at the UN. Only those who had little or no choice voted with and for Moscow. Even the member of the Warsaw Pact, romania, defied Moscow by declining to vote at all.
But it was not a revival of an old cold war. It was rather something new and hence in some ways more dangerous. These were the opening moves and maneuvers in a new struggle for power and influence in a part of the world that did not figure in the original cold war. At stake in this new confrontation are Southwest Asia, Arabia, and the world's largest known source of oil.
Actually, it could be labeled as the start of "Cold War III."
"Cold War I" was waged over the frontiers of Europe. It was triggered by the blockade of Berlin in 1948. The worst was over with the lifting of the blockade in 1949, but it lingered on with occasional flare-ups (including the Cuban missile crisis) down to Richard Nixon's launching of "detente" in 1972.
The frontiers of Europe have not been seriously challenged since 1949 and are presumably stable now -- although there is anxiety in the West over what may happen when President Tito of Yugoslavia is no longer holding things down in the Balkans.
"Cold War II" was waged over Asia. It was triggered by the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. It lasted in changing form down through the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1972.
At the beginning, the Soviet Union and China were allies. The US faced the two together. At the end, the Soviet Union and China had become enemies. Their mutual hostility provided a new balance in Asia. A sequel is being played out now in Southeast Asia, where Moscow backs Vietnam in its attempted conquest of Cambodia, while China backs the Cambodians. The US and Western Europe are only spectators.
The new cockpit of the nations is in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
The Soviet Union presumably has both offensive and defensive motives behind its opening move. Offensively, it seeks influence in the entire area. Probably it hopes that it will end up with a land connection from Soviet home territories to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. Defensively, it probably hopes to break up any possibility of an effective encirclement by the Western democracies linking up through Iran and Pakistan with China and Japan in the Far East.
Power struggles of this kind can last for years, particularly when the stakes are high. In this case, the economic welfare of the industrial democracies is based heavily on Middle East oil. It will probably continue to be so based well into the next century.
Both Moscow and Washington enter into this new struggle with liabilities. The Soviets used raw power in their opening move. Those 104 votes in the UN show what a shock that deed administered to all who were free to vote their real feelings. Most of the "nonaligned" countries, led by their founder, Yugoslavia, voted to deplore the Soviet deed.
The 18 who voted with Moscow against the resolution were made up of the 10 countries that live inside the military frontiers of the Soviet Union itself (such as East Germany, Poland, Outer Mongolia,); the two African countries garrisoned by Cuban troops under Soviet advisers (Angola and Ethiopia); the radical black African neighbor of Rhodesia, Mozambique; the two military dependencies in Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Laos); the Carribean dependency, Cuba, with its own new satellite, Grenada (population 107,000); and the one Arabian dependency, South Yemen.
Not one of those could easily have done anything else. The UN vote was as nearly universal a condemnation of the act of a great power as is realistically conceivable.Moscow had moved well beyond the boundaries of currently acceptable public behavior. The Soviet people were not told of the UN tally.
But the United States is not popular in the contested area. Its own relations with the Arab countries have deteriorated over what they see as US failure to push Israel along toward liberation of the Palestinians. Its relations with Iran have reached a new low point over the hostages and the Shah.
Its relations with Pakistan have been damaged by Mr. Carter's nuclear nonproliferation policy. The Pakistanis are so irritated over that policy as applied to their country that their first reaction when offered guns for their own defense against Moscow was to say, in effect: Well, perhaps, but no conditions.
Two countries that voted to deplore Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan -- Bangladesh and Mexico -- declined to vote with the US over sanctions on Iran. China, which voted to deplore the Afghan invasion, voted absent on sanctions against Iran. There is no enthusiasm among any of the small countries for those sanctions. Nor is there solid evidence yet that the larger allies of the US will be diligent in refraining from selling to Iran what it may want.
The US effort to coerce Iran over the hostages has become in itself a major stumbling block to the formation of an anti- Soviet coalition in the area south of the Afghan frontier. Soviet troops can look down from the Khyber Pass on an area that is anything but stable, and certainly not eager for help from Washington.
The fact that Europe and most of Asia now are relatively stable is another problem facing Mr. Carter in Washington. Western Europe is happy to deplore Moscow's use of raw force in Asia but reluctant to do anything that might revive instability in Europe. The Europeans would be happy to help in the Middle East, if they could have a guarantee of no reprisals in their own area.
The same applies to much of Asia. Except in the south, where the struggle over Cambodia goes on, Asia is almost as stable as Europe. Those involved would not really want to see their frontiers reopened to question. How does one wage Cold War III without reviving Cold Wars I and II?
Mr. Carter in Washington will not find it easy to recruit eager allies for his Middle East campaign. Yet to avoid the challenge could all too easily mean economic disaster for the US and its industrial allies.